Caster Semenya
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Caster Semenya eyes Olympic 400m-800m double, possible Allyson Felix clash

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Scrutinized South African Caster Semenya said she thinks she will race both the 400m and the 800m at the Rio Olympics after she broke her national record in the 800m at a meet in Monaco on Friday night.

“I think we’re going to take part in two events, four and eight,” Semenya said on BBC Radio after the race. “But, yeah, we still have to go decide again.”

If Semenya races the 400m in Rio, in addition to her favored 800m, she could face the biggest U.S. track and field star, Allyson Felix, the reigning world champion and fastest woman of 2016 in the one-lap race.

Semenya, known for a gender-testing controversy after she won the 2009 World 800m title, set her 400m personal best on April 16, clocking 50.74 seconds. She ranks ninth in the world this year in the event among women poised to compete in Rio.

Felix’s world-leading time for 2016 is 49.68 seconds. Felix won the 2015 World title in 49.26 seconds. It doesn’t sound like Semenya has eyes on beating Felix in Rio.

“The main thing for me is try to run under 50, that’s the main target,” Semenya said Friday night.

Semenya could try to become the second woman to earn Olympic 400m and 800m medals in the same Games, joining Brit Ann Packer, who took 400m silver and then broke the 800m world record at the 1964 Tokyo Games.

The women’s 400m final in Rio is Aug. 15. The women’s 800m rounds start Aug. 17.

In Monaco, Semenya cemented her status as Olympic 800m favorite, breaking her national record with the fastest time in the world since 2008.

Semenya clocked 1:55.33 for two laps (video here). The previous national record was Semenya’s 1:55.45 from 2009 Worlds.

Semenya won by .91 over Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, who is shaping up to be the silver-medal favorite in Rio. Full Monaco meet results are here.

Semenya’s time is the 22nd-fastest ever and still 2.05 seconds slower than the world record set by Czech Jarmila Kratochvílová in 1983.

Semenya has re-emerged this year with form not seen since she took silver at the London Olympics. The sudden revival came after a July 2015 decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that suspended for two years a 2011 IAAF ruling that regulated women’s testosterone levels for competition eligibility.

Semenya, who was kept out of competition by the IAAF for 11 months in 2009 and 2010 while undergoing gender tests, has performed well at various times before the 2011 ruling, during the regulation period (2012 Olympics) and now without the regulation.

In other Monaco events, the Netherlands’ Dafne Schippers won the 100m in 10.94 seconds into a -.5 meters/second headwind. Jamaican veteran Veronica Campbell-Brown was second in 11.12, with Tianna Bartoletta fifth in 11.21. Bartoletta was second at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Jamaican Elaine Thompson, who was not in the Monaco field, is fastest in the world this year at 10.70 seconds.

In the 110m hurdles, Olympic favorite Omar McLeod of Jamaica hit the last hurdle and fell, finishing last (video here).

World champion Wayde van Niekerk won the 400m in 44.12 seconds. The field did not include 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt or 2012 Olympic champion Kirani James, who rank Nos. 1 and 2 in the world (43.97, 44.08) this year ahead of the South African.

The men’s 1500m included the last two Olympic champions in the event — Asbel Kiprop and Taoufik Makhloufi — and Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah. They were all beaten by Kenyan Ronald Kwemoi.

New Zealand’s Valerie Adams beat fellow Olympic medal contenders Christina Schwanitz of Germany and Michelle Carter of the U.S. in the shot put.

MORE: American record holder concerned about Semenya competing in Rio

Lin Dan, badminton legend, retires: ‘It is very difficult to say goodbye’

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Lin Dan, arguably the greatest badminton player in history, announced retirement Saturday, citing “pain and injuries” in bowing out a year before the postponed Tokyo Olympics.

“I have been with the national team from 2000 to 2020, and it is very difficult to say goodbye,” 36-year-old Lin wrote to his four million Weibo fans, according to Badminton World Federation (BWF) translation. “Pain and injuries no longer allow me to fight with my teammates. I have gratitude, a heavy heart and unwillingness.”

Lin, nicknamed “Super Dan,” won Olympic singles titles in 2008 and 2012, plus five individual world titles. It’s the greatest resume for any badminton player from China, which owns twice as many medals as any other nation in the sport that debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

He competed at the last four Olympics, won the sport’s Super Grand Slam (nine major titles) and had his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds in Shanghai.

Lin’s outbursts on and off the court led to some calling him the John McEnroe of badminton, but he is revered. In 2015, he was the second athlete on Forbes China‘s most popular celebrities list behind tennis player Li Na.

Lin’s pursuit of a fifth Olympics in Tokyo was looking out of reach. He dropped to No. 26 in the Olympic qualifying rankings, trailing four countrymen, including No. 5 Chen Long (Rio Olympic champion) and No. 11 Shi Yuqi (2018 World silver medalist). A nation can qualify a maximum of two individual players per gender for the Games.

“From where came his mastery? In short, his prowess was essentially due to the completeness of his game – in skill, physical ability and mental strength,” the BWF wrote in a press release. “Such was his craft that even well into his 30s, normally considered an advanced age for men’s singles, he could outplay younger and fitter opponents.”

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

MORE: Who is China’s greatest Olympian?

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MyKayla Skinner’s motivation for Tokyo: her Rio Olympic experience

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MyKayla Skinner remembers the little room at the SAP Center in San Jose. She remembers the wait, somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes.

After the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials, the competitors (14 total performed) assembled while a selection committee convened in another space.

The committee finalized the five-woman Olympic team (plus three alternates), marched into the athletes’ room and delivered the verdict.

“They say the first four names, and then there’s that one spot left,” Skinner recalled. “I’m like, is it going to be me? You’re so tense just waiting there. All of us holding each other’s hands in the room. We’re all sitting there. It’s just, like, frozen dead silent. Then they say that fifth spot.”

Skinner doesn’t remember who was the fifth name. Just that it wasn’t her.

“I just broke down crying,” she said in a recent interview. “All that hard work I put in still wasn’t good enough. Even though it was. It’s just who they needed for the team.”

Skinner placed fourth in the all-around at those Olympic Trials, the highest finisher who was not named to the Olympic team. She was one of three alternates. If the Olympic team was chosen by all-around standings, a selection committee would not be necessary. Instead, gymnasts are puzzle pieces, chosen as who best fits the Olympic format: three gymnasts per apparatus in the team final and up to two per nation per individual final.

Skinner’s mind raced while she waited for the committee’s decision. She eventually settled on a gut feeling, that she would not make the team.

“I thought that it should be enough, but at the same I didn’t think that it would be,” said Lisa Spini, Skinner’s coach at Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler, Arizona. “I thought the team was already decided before the Olympic Trials.”

Spini said it was her toughest night as a gymnastics coach.

“Being an alternate is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in gymnastics,” said Skinner, who traveled to Brazil and, with fellow alternates Ashton Locklear and Ragan Smith, trained separately from the Olympic team. “The whole time I was in Rio, I probably cried every single night

“The Olympics should be something so special, but I feel like it was definitely miserable at times. It was really hard to enjoy being an alternate. With this comeback, that has pushed me so hard just because I was so close.”

You may have read about Skinner back in the spring, after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed to 2021.

It’s a devastating delay for a female gymnast, whose peak often lasts for one Olympic cycle (sometimes even shorter). Skinner is an exception, excelling for the better part of a decade on different levels.

She made her first world championships team in 2014. After Rio, she matriculated at the University of Utah, where she was twice an NCAA all-around runner-up and hit an NCAA record 161 straight routines without a fall. In 2019, she decided to come back to international competition — for an Olympic run — with one year left of NCAA gymnastics.

She is 23, the oldest of the 16-woman U.S. national team. She is trying to become the oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic gymnastics team since 2004. And the first with NCAA experience to do so since Alicia Sacramone in 2008.

“The reason why a lot of college gymnasts couldn’t come back and do it is they’ve been so injured over the years,” Spini said. “Their body wouldn’t hold up. She’s been really lucky that way.”

Skinner could have easily followed the path of so many other stars who signaled the end of an elite career by going to college, where training and routines are less demanding.

She questioned herself often after the Tokyo postponement whether it was worth it to return to elite training. The Olympic team event roster size has been cut from five to four. Simone Biles is an overwhelming favorite to earn one spot. In the face of those odds, Skinner can’t shake a memory from Rio.

“I just go back to the moment of when I was sitting in the stands,” watching the Final Five earn gold, Skinner said. “I was so close to making the team. This has been my dream ever since I went to Desert Lights when I was 12.”

Skinner’s comeback is already a success. Last year, on three months of elite training, she placed eighth at the U.S. Championships. She was convinced to accept an invitation to the world championships selection camp, where six women would make the traveling team (one later named an alternate).

Like in 2016, Skinner placed fourth in the all-around competition before the roster was chosen.

Again, the gymnasts gathered for the announcement. This time, Skinner made the cut as the sixth woman named. Biles, the other 20-something at the camp and a friend, jumped in excitement.

The team traveled to Germany in late September. After training, one woman had to be designated the alternate. High performance team coordinator Tom Forster took Skinner aside one day on the way to lunch. She knew what was coming and broke down in tears, flashing back to 2016.

“Simone was like, hey, let’s go to the bathroom. She helped talk me through it and helped me calm down and definitely made me a feel a lot better,” said Skinner, who supported Biles and the U.S. team that competed in Stuttgart. She then wed Jonas Harmer in November and decided what must be done to make the Olympic team.

“We’re going to try to add in some big skills, which will put her difficulty level, probably, second only to Simone,” Spini said.

Skinner is documenting her last year-plus in elite gymnastics on a YouTube channel with 29,000 subscribers. She has been fortunate during the coronavirus pandemic to train at her gym if no more than 10 people were present. Many other gymnasts — and athletes across Olympic sports — spent weeks or months out of their facilities.

“I definitely don’t think I would have been able to have that much time off,” she said. “That’s really hard with gymnastics because you feel like, you take two days off, and it’s like you had a year off.”

One day this spring, Skinner’s mom called, in tears, fearing for her life with an illness that turned out to be the coronavirus. Both of her parents, in their 60s, had it and briefly lost their senses of taste. Her mom had breathing problems, but they recovered.

One night last month, Skinner had a dream about next year’s Olympic Trials. The Final Five all came back to compete, and Skinner was again named an alternate. She woke up. Skinner doesn’t know how she would handle that kind of disappointment in real life, again.

“So it’s kind of scary,” she said. Then Skinner thinks back to Rio, and that burning she felt while watching the Final Five win gold medals.

“This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m meant to do is elite gymnastics,” said Skinner, who was born via life-threatening, early-labor C-section, needing to be revived by doctors. “I think it’s cool that I can have this opportunity to go and push myself one last time so I can reach that end goal.”

MORE: Gymnast Grace McCallum won a coin flip to become world champion

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